Laine Cunningham

Introduction from Woman Alone: A Six-Month Journey Through the Australian Outback


  SOME YEARS AGO, I did something that most people, depending on
their taste for risk, might consider daring, adventurous, or idiotic. I
chucked everything to spend six months camping—alone, as a
woman—in the Australian Outback.
Sounds bold, maybe, unless you know that the life I had
constructed stick by stick and day by day was empty. The college
degree that suited my goals as a novelist left me unsuited to a wide
range of income-producing options, so I had landed in a corporate job
I utterly despised.
My depression wasn’t clinical—I functioned well enough and held
down a job and ate regularly and exercised—but I was anything except
happy. Every morning I dragged myself into an office building where
my peers viciously tore down the overweight woman on our team,
invented horribly clever and horribly misogynistic nicknames for our
boss (most of my peers were women), and gossiped endlessly about
who was sleeping with whom and what that might mean for the
woman’s career advancement (never the man’s).
I lived in a basement apartment with so many health and safety
violations that the police officer who arrived when my car was broken
into offered to report my landlord. I declined because I would have
been forced to find another place I could afford, a tall order in the
Washington, DC metropolitan area.
I had tons of friends and went out nearly every weekend but the
bar scene and the punk rock scene and the all-night party/hookup
scene and the hanging out at movie night getting stoned scene had
grown stale even before I’d received my degree. I had already
dedicated myself to becoming a writer but was too mentally exhausted
to get much writing done.
And that was the real problem. Because I wasn’t pursuing my true
place in the world, the life I was leading—corporatized, industrialized,
and in which everything I had ever been taught to want had been
falsely glamorized—was killing me.
Something had to be done. What, I wasn’t exactly sure. For a year,
I reached out to my company’s London office. My father’s family is at
least half Scotts-Irish, so the transfer would have opened up
explorations into that side of my heritage.
By the time the foreign office’s director made it clear—through a
blunt, face-to-face conversation that materialized only because we
both happened to arrive at the deserted Virginia office at six in the
morning—that an offer would never be extended, my backup plan had
already been funded with a fat savings account.
The idea was to knock around in the UK until the money ran out. I
hoped to be there for a year but the expenses made it much more
likely I would only wander for six months. I would see the sights, visit
the rolling countryside, and work on losing as much of my tan as any
self-respecting UK citizen. Who knew what might arise during that
time? Where might I land?
I applied for a sabbatical and started packing. Anything I wouldn’t
truly need when…if…I returned to the US was sold off or given away.
The rest was stored in my parents’ basement. Even the car I had so
lovingly restored, and into which I had sunk a feverish amount of
money, was put up for sale. The Triumph was too temperamental to sit
unattended for six hours let alone six months, so selling it was the best
option.
As the final sixty days ticked away, something bizarre and
unsettling happened. Time and again, I was visited by vivid dreams of
kangaroos and the red desert. Over the course of a few weeks, the
images went from foggy to sharply intense.
These dream-visions never came when I was deeply asleep.
Instead they appeared like beautiful hallucinations whenever I was
drowsing. Their gravitational pull caught at my heart. As I rose up out
of each one, its threads and its images clung to me for minutes and
then hours.
Finally I surrendered. All right, already! I’ll go to Australia!
I knew nothing about the country or what I might do there. But
one thing was clear: this journey I had decided to take had always been
about the Outback…even before I’d started dreaming.
That was perfectly fine with me. I’d considered hiking through
America’s largest national parks for a year but I really wanted to leave
the country. Rather than walk the UK’s cliffs and moors, perhaps I
could camp in the desert.
No matter how I spent my time in Australia, though, something
was waiting for me. Something had grown tired of waiting and was
reaching out. I bought the ticket.
The frenzied preparations that went with switching destinations
began. My division head had already said the company would not
guarantee that my position would be open when I returned. In my
mind, there was no guarantee that I would return to that company or
even to the US.
With less than two weeks to go, I took a nap on the couch. As I
drifted closer toward sleep, I fell into a vision of astonishing clarity.
My spirit soared over red desert plains where a few stunted trees
dotted the broad earth. I swooped down toward a lone tree with a
twisted black trunk. Its thin canopy cast jagged shadows over a corpse.
My corpse. I floated inches above it, peering at the face to be
certain that it was me and that I was dead. A film of dust coated eyes
that stared blankly at the sky.
The shock jolted me awake. I sat for a long time thinking about
how clear and detailed the vision had been. Was this a warning? I was
twenty-seven years old. Any trip a woman undertakes alone involves
risks, and wandering through undeveloped regions in a foreign
country would entail dangers of which I was ignorant. This wasn’t
supposed to be a suicide mission. Should I cancel the trip?
In a way, though, I was already dead. Returning to the life I had
been living was unthinkable. The depression that weighed me down,
the sheer grind of sameness at my job, the poisonous gossip and the
stretch of similar days would never end unless something was
done...done by me, and done for me.
I decided to go. Even if I died in the outback, for a few short
months—and really for the first time in my life—I would have lived
fully.
I told no one about the vision. Too many opinions had already
been proffered about my plans. My parents were of course worried but
knew it was hopeless to try to dissuade me. My friends thought it was
great while pointing out the homes, children, and responsibilities that
prevented them from undertaking the same type of journey. My
department head didn’t think I’d last more than two months before
begging for my job back. Who would I tell?
Halfway through the journey, I would find that lonely, twisted
tree. The events that would take place there would threaten my life
and be entirely out of my control…until, that is, I made a choice.
A choice made by me. A choice made for me.
That experience and my choice would change me forever. After
finding that tree, the rest of my time in the Outback would be
different. It would feel less compelling, as if marking that milepost had
accomplished everything I’d come to achieve.
Eventually I realized that it had marked the turning point I’d
hoped to find. My life before that tree had been so flawed that the
escape hatch had been hidden. Still I’d known, or my heart had known,
that a new road would lead to more than just surviving in a salaried
position, more than just getting through every day by keeping my
head down and my mouth shut.
Only a dramatic and dangerous event could reveal that road. Only
facing death allowed me to choose life.
Before I headed into the Outback, the many people who had
confessed that they wanted to do something similar also said that
their kids, their spouse, their mortgage, their whatever were
insurmountable obstacles that prevented them from undertaking their
own journeys.
The truth is that they were also making a choice. They were
bypassing one dream in order to pursue or maintain a different dream
they valued more. Before my sabbatical, I purged nearly all my
material possessions. That left the entire world open to
possibility…even the possibility that my life would end.
Not everyone can or should take such drastic steps. But people
who allow other considerations to overshadow their dreams should let
go of the vision or idea or concept that actually isn’t their dream.
Stability, raising a family, and cultivating a life that’s filled with
comfort and joy are all dreams that can be fulfilled…if the dreamers
are willing to make conscious and informed choices.
No matter what your dream looks like, my wish is that the book
you’re holding right now provides the hope and inspiration to launch
you onto your own path. In these pages, you’ll find the usual traveler’s
stories brightly painted with the ways other people live. You’ll read
some of my comments and hear the thoughts of others. Along the way,
perhaps you’ll find an undiscovered part of yourself. Perhaps you’ll
mark your own milestone.
Turn the page with every hope for the person you can become.